August 30th, 2017

A Man, a Cigar, and a Plymouth

A pear tree planted by Gottlieb Waschke.

I posted this item almost ten years ago and has been one of the most read items in the Vine Maple Studio. I edited it lightly for this repost. I should note that this story is constructed entirely from hazy memories that have passed through several hands. I would not take it as entirely historical.

 

My great grandfather, Gottlieb Waschke, like most men from the turn of the century, smoked cigars, but he was not good at driving automobiles.

He had a nickel silver match case with a cigar end clipper and an engraving of a stag on the front. My grandmother said he brought the case from Germany.

After he married off six daughters and more or less established four sons, he bought a Plymouth and drove it around some, but he never learned to drive well. A man with six married daughters was under no  compulsion to drive any better than he felt like, and the state had not gotten around to traffic laws or requiring driving licenses. In photographs, Great Grandpa resembled his contemporary fellow Prussian, Otto von Bismarck. My father remembered him as stubborn with unshakable self-confidence, even arrogance. Those traits could not have been mellowed by his success with managing family affairs.

Dad rode with Grossvater in his Plymouth a few times. He overheard the old man muttering “Recht, recht,” and “Links, links” (German for “right, right” and “left, left”) as if he were driving his German speaking team of horses, when he wanted the car to turn. Dad, who was not more than six or seven at the time, said he wanted to laugh, but did not dare.

John Schaefer, a family friend whom I have mentioned before, told me a story about my great grandfather’s driving. One sunny September Friday,when all the farmers were in Bellingham shopping, paying bills and selling things, Great Grandpa decided to drive in to town. John Schaefer saw him in his Plymouth on the corner of State (then called Elk) and Holly, a busy spot in town. In its way, as busy as any intersection anywhere. Great Grandpa was stopped waiting for traffic. When traffic started, he popped the clutch and killed the engine. Horns started honking, and one driver, probably having just left one of the taverns that were everywhere before and after 1919, shook a fist menacingly.

John Schaefer was a self-professed no-good at that time, probably just out of one of the taverns himself, was watching from a safe vantage on a bench on the sidewalk, smoking a scant teaspoon of Bull Durham tobacco wrapped in wheat straw paper. John said Gottlieb gave his harassers less attention than he paid to the manure in his barn, took a six-married-daughters stretch, and searched his pockets for a cigar, which he eventually found. With great care. he used his nickel silver match case trimmer on the end of the cigar. The crowd gathered and more drunks got word that something was up. They began to creep out onto the street as Gottlieb trimmed his cigar exactly as he liked it, stopping to test the draw and admire his work.

John began to fix himself another smoke as Gottlieb lit a match. The first match blew out in the breeze before Gottlieb got it up to his cigar. In those days, before the landfills and regrades had leveled and molded the geography, Elk street was closer to the water than it is now and John said there were a few oysters to be picked up right in town. On a tough day, you could go out on the tide flats and gather a meal, and Jake at the Waterfront Tavern would let you eat it at the bar if you could afford one of Jake’s watery and short nickel beers.

All the old settlers, Gottlieb included, learned to go to the water when food was short, to treat the sulfurous stench of the tide flats as a comfort that could be relied on in tough times. Gottlieb no doubt smelled the tide flats of Bellingham Bay and took comfort as he calmly lit his cigar and took a few fragrant puffs, feeling satisfied that September afternoon.

The horns honked and a few more fists were raised, but John Schaefer pointed out that Gottlieb Waschke was known to have four sons and six sons-in-law, three or four of whom were always ready and eager to take offense, possessed fists like stones, and had arms as hard and tough as a vine maple trunk. This thought kept the crowd in check as Gottlieb got the fire burning nicely in his cigar, started his Plymouth, and drove on.

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